On a sunny December Sunday, when others in Delhi occupied themselves with living room tea, farm house mimosas, and cricket on makeshift Lodi Gardens wickets, a strange assortment of Gita (a prominent Hindu text) enthusiasts gathered at the Red Fort. Among them was India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj who matter-of-factly demanded that the Gita be declared India’s national scripture.
Swaraj couldn’t have been more out of place — the Red Fort is an iconic Muslim monument and Delhiites today could be bothered less about such drivel. Such ironies aside, it was bewildering to see that this minister had the time for such trifles, when she could instead be focused on India’s economic and diplomatic challenges, challenges that would make even Kissinger shudder.
This was not an aberration. Sadhvi Jyoti, India’s food processing minister recently gave the electorate mass indigestion when she labeled all non-Hindus godless bastards. She wasn’t sacked due to her ability to attract lower-class votes. The Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), an organization much more irrelevant than its name suggests, launched a program recently called Ghar Vapsi (homecoming). This wasn’t a cheerleader-laden football event: the sport here was converting Indians to Hinduism. Another senior BJP miscreant, Subramaniam Swamy, has been demanding fundamentalist changes to India’s constitution that would require all non-Hindus to publicly accept that they are Hindu-descendants or lose their right to vote.
In some sense, these repeated, high-profile provocations make Indians feel we are more a country of snake-charmers than a country of global IT giants. They also make Modi’s emphasis on economic development and secularism look disingenuous. India has gotten rid of strange Hindu traditions for good: animal sacrifice was a central piece of Hinduism for several centuries, and in more recent history sati (widow-burning) was practiced quite commonly. These were primitive and abhorrent practices. India cannot return to this type of nonsense.
Given that Modi won the largest election in human history primarily because the previous government often appeared paralysed or impotent, he should have acted like a potent prime minister and sacked, and where appropriate jailed, these fanatics. By the by, he should do this to fanatics of all religions.
Instead, Modi has enlisted India’s Clint Eastwood (Amitabh Bachchan) to do a few advertisements highlighting the secular nature of his regime. This is both a disgusting refusal to recognize how seriously this issue needs to be managed and another piece of evidence that Modi is basically a public relations guy — he cannot really execute at the national level. His policies and declarations to date seem more appropriate for rhetoric on a film set in Universal Studios than something capable of generating even a little change for the residents of Dharavi (Mumbai’s biggest slum).
However, Modi is also a pragmatic Gujarati and is likely to make the amends his electorate demands from him. It is up to Indians to keep him in check. This may be difficult given that it took the country sixty years to vote out one cabal of corrupt cronies led by Sonia Gandhi, but Indians need to show our impatience like we do when we drive on our roads. We need to threaten Modi with a pink slip. The threat of being fired will make Modi do real work and compel him to stick pacifiers in the mouths of his gang of saffron-clothed nobodies. Indians would do well to send a strong disapproving message in every election that comes up, and through protests around the country.
Mahatma Gandhi, also a Gujarati, was known for spinning his own yarn as a mark of resistance and self-reliance. Without overt and livid disapproval of Modi and a course-correction, the Indian electorate will be left wondering how a country of a billion people and a few thousand years of history managed to be smitten and misled by a very different type of yarn-spinner.